Ethical Issues in Mitigation of Climate Change: The Option of Reduced Meat Production and Consumption
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- Nordgren, A. J Agric Environ Ethics (2012) 25: 563. doi:10.1007/s10806-011-9335-1
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In this paper I discuss ethical issues related to mitigation of climate change. In particular, I focus on mitigation of climate change to the extent this change is caused by livestock production. I support the view—on which many different ethical approaches converge—that the present generation has a moral obligation to mitigate climate change for the benefit of future generations and that developed countries should take the lead in the process. Moreover, I argue that since livestock production is an important contributing factor to climate change, we should undertake mitigation measures also in this sector and not only in, for example, the transport and energy sectors. However, technological solutions do not seem sufficient in the livestock sector, leaving us with the option of reduced meat production and consumption. In order to reach significant results in mitigation of climate change, political steering seems necessary. With this in mind, I argue in favor of a tax on meat consumption.
KeywordsClimate changeLivestock productionMeat consumptionMeat tax
Introduction: Meat and Climate Change
The consensus among scientists is overwhelming that human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases cause global warming (IPCC 2007; Oreskes 2004). Global warming is predicted to have serious consequences for future generations, although at present the degree of severity is uncertain. Examples are extreme weather events, sea level rise, climate refugees, adverse impacts on indigenous populations, spreading of diseases, destruction of ecosystems, and extinction of species (IPCC 2007). However, global warming is not just a problem for the future. The first reports are coming linking serious present-day weather events to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Min et al. 2011; Pall et al. 2011).
Not only sectors like energy supply, industry, and transport contribute to climate change but also agriculture (IPCC 2007), including the livestock sector (Steinfeld et al. 2006). Mitigation of climate change—to the extent it is caused by meat production (and indirectly consumption)—has been discussed in a number of reports and articles. In addition to technological solutions, some reports suggest the option of reduced meat production and consumption as a measure of climate change mitigation (Garnett 2009; Audsley et al. 2009; Stehfest et al. 2009; MacMillan and Durrant 2009; Wirsenius et al. 2010).
In this paper, I will investigate ethical issues raised by this mitigation option of reduced meat production and consumption. Some of these issues are part of more general problems of climate change mitigation, others are specific to this option. In the growing literature on climate ethics, there is commonly a focus on general issues while the specific issues of meat production and consumption are largely neglected (see, for example, Gardiner et al. 2010; Page 2006; Vanderheiden 2008). Conversely, in reports and policies on GHG emissions from meat production, the general perspective is often missing (see, for example, the reports mentioned above). However, it is of vital importance to discuss the mitigation of GHG emissions caused by meat production and consumption with the general perspective in mind. In this paper, my aim is precisely this. When the mitigation option of reduced meat production and consumption is considered together with mitigation of climate change in general, the special character of this option becomes clearer and also its special difficulties.
My argument consists of three steps. In the first step, I take a stand on certain general ethical issues in mitigation of climate change. In the second step, I take a stand on ethical issues related to climate change mitigation in terms of reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from meat production and consumption. In the final step, I argue in favor of the mitigation option of reduced meat production and consumption and make certain suggestions how to carry out this reduction in practice. The argument is an argument by specification in the sense that I start from general considerations and proceed to more specific ones. In each step, I highlight four different aspects: whether we should mitigate, which countries and individuals should mitigate, what mitigation measures should be undertaken, and whether these mitigation measures are feasible.
General Issues in Mitigation of Climate Change
Should We Mitigate Climate Change?
The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 1992, Article 3:1).
How can this moral intuition be justified? Several different arguments have been proposed.
According to consequentialist arguments, human-induced climate change should be mitigated because it is likely to cause harm to future generations. To this category belong, for example, arguments by the preference utilitarian Peter Singer (2010) and by the more broadly welfarist law scholars Posner and Weisbach (2010).
The non-consequentialist arguments are of different types. Caney argues that the adverse effects of climate change violate the basic human rights of future human beings such as the right to life (e.g., extreme weather events will lead to human deaths), the right to subsistence (e.g., higher temperatures and sea level rise will lead to crop failure), the right to health (spreading of diseases), the right to property (e.g., extreme weather events and flooding will lead to destruction of property), and the right not to be subject to enforced relocation (climate refugees) (Caney 2009, 2010). Other commentators focus on the injustice of climate change. Future generations will experience the adverse effects of climate change but have not caused them, while the present generation has caused these effects but will not experience (most of) them. Our substantial GHG emissions therefore constitute an injustice to future generations (Shue 2010; Page 2006; Vanderheiden 2008).
My objective here is not to discuss the pros and cons of these arguments. Neither is it to argue for one of them. I only want to make the point that there is a strong convergence among ethical approaches on the view that our present generation has an obligation to mitigate climate change for the benefit of future generations and that I support this view. We have several different kinds of ethical reasons to accept the view that we should mitigate global warming. Moreover, when below I argue in favor of certain specific measures for mitigation of climate change, I try to do so in a way that could be accepted regardless of exactly which of these converging ethical approaches one takes as a point of departure.
Which Countries and Individuals?
But which countries and individuals in the present generation have, more precisely, the obligation to mitigate climate change for the benefit of future generations? There seems to be a consensus that developed countries have a special responsibility in this regard. In the quotation above from the UNFCCC, we saw a statement about “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” and that “the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” The UNFCCC also points out that the work to protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations should be carried out “on the basis of equity” (UNFCCC 1992). We see here a link between responsibility and justice. Due to considerations of justice developed countries—or, more precisely, their governments—have a responsibility to take the lead in mitigating climate change.
This is also the common view in the debate. Some arguments are backward-looking, stressing corrective justice (e.g., the polluter pays principle). Those countries that have caused the global warming in the first place—i.e., developed countries—should pay for its adverse effects. Other arguments are forward-looking, focusing on distributive justice (e.g., the principle of equal per capita shares and the ability to pay principle). Rich countries that can afford it—i.e., developed countries—should pay for the mitigation, not the poor countries—i.e., developing countries—that will probably be harmed the most (see Shue 2010; Vanderheiden 2008; Page 2006; Singer 2010; Caney 2010).
However, Posner and Weisbach have suggested that the issue of responsibility to mitigate climate change should be kept separate from the issue of justice. They argue that what is really important is to have a global treaty that works, i.e., a policy that is accepted also by countries such as the US, China, and India, which have refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. It is essential that they see a global treaty as beneficial for their own countries. They would never pay for climate change mitigation if they would not expect to get their own interests fulfilled (Posner and Weisbach 2010).
How should these options be assessed? First of all, I am critical of the sharp distinction between developed and developing countries presumed by the UNFCCC and also by many of the authors mentioned above. Better categorizations are in terms of developed countries, emerging countries (for example, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)) and developing countries or in terms of high-income countries, middle-income countries and low-income countries. A sharp distinction between developed and developing countries, does not hold true today, and this must be taken seriously in the climate debate. It is increasingly difficult to maintain that countries like China, India, and Brazil should not take responsibility for mitigation of climate change. China now has the highest flow of carbon dioxide emissions in the world (Posner and Weisbach 2010, 40) and there are more Chinese people with an affluent lifestyle than there are, for example, Germans (Singer 2011, 229). The “emerging” countries must start constraining their emissions.
Given this complex view, I suggest a middle course. Posner and Weisbach are correct that if we want to achieve substantial results in mitigation of climate change we need to assign more weight in the short-term to the aspect of feasibility of international mitigation policies than has so far been the case. Countries like the US must see that their own interests are fulfilled, which presupposes that the aspect of justice is not emphasized too strongly. However, in order to have developing countries and emerging countries like the BRICS countries to sign a global treaty, the aspect of justice must necessarily also be recognized. Attaining substantial results in international negotiations requires a delicate balancing of interests. Developed countries should take the lead in climate change mitigation, but emerging countries must also start assuming responsibility.
So far I have focused on collectivistic accounts assigning responsibilities to countries (or rather governments). Let us now turn to individualistic accounts, i.e., accounts of individual responsibility. What responsibility lies with the individual to mitigate climate change? Basically, two main views exist (apart from the view that individuals have no responsibility).
According to the first view, individuals with a standard above a decent minimum have a responsibility as citizens and consumers to mitigate climate change. They should as citizens by democratic participation try to influence politicians to enact policies for mitigation of climate change. But they should also in their daily life as individual consumers try to mitigate at a local level by changing their consumption patterns (Singer 2011, 216–237).
The second view stresses that we only have a responsibility as citizens to try to influence politicians, not as individual consumers. We don’t have an individual responsibility to reduce our own emissions, because what we do will be insignificant (it might feel good, but it will not matter). Only political steering at a global level will make a practical difference. But we have an individual responsibility to put pressure on politicians to enact policies for mitigation of climate change, policies that will reduce the GHG emissions. This is how Sinnot-Armstrong puts it: “It is better to enjoy your Sunday driving while working to change the law so as to make it illegal for you to enjoy your Sunday driving” (Sinnot-Armstrong 2010).
To some extent, I am critical of the view of Sinnot-Armstrong. Even though his main point is correct–that political steering is pivotal because the climate change problem is so big and because many people might not be willing to voluntarily change their consumption patterns—I think he downplays too much the responsibility of individuals. Their responsibility is not just to lobby and vote but to start changing their own consumption patterns. By being role models as consumers, we may influence other people and eventually influence the government to enact mitigation policies. Changing our consumption patterns is a matter of credibility.
Given that developed countries and emerging countries as well as individuals with a standard of living above a decent minimum have an obligation to mitigate climate change for the benefit of future generations, what means should be used to attain this goal?
On the political level, there are two main methods. The first is command and control regulation. The government decides the mix of mitigation measures. Some things are acceptable, some not. The second consists of market-based approaches. Here the government relies on markets and individuals to decide the mix of measures. Examples are cap-and-trade, taxation,and subsidies (creating incentives).
The focus in the debate has mainly been on market-based approaches and especially on cap-and-trade. The most important example is the Kyoto Protocol. There are at least three types of cap-and-trade approaches.
According to the per capita approach, the global GHG emissions are to be reduced below a certain safe level (contraction) and, in the longer term, the per capita emissions in developed and developing countries are to converge on an equal level. The basic assumption is that everyone has an equal entitlement to emit greenhouse gases, and the approach allows poor countries to trade surplus entitlements (Singer 2010; Meyer 2000; Global Commons Institute 2011).
A problem with this approach is that it does not take into account differences in the standard of living within countries. This has led some to suggest approaches that more directly link mitigation and redistribution of welfare. One example is the Greenhouse Development Rights (GDR) approach. This approach ascribes to everyone a right to development and relieves from duties to mitigate climate change those individuals who are still striving for a decent standard of living. It takes differences within countries seriously by not relying on per capita averages. In other words, it assigns responsibilities to those countries and individuals only whose right to development is satisfied (Kartha et al. 2009; EcoEquity 2011; Stockholm Environment Institute 2011).
Common to both approaches is that low stabilization levels of greenhouse gas emissions are required and that mitigation of climate change and development must go hand in hand. Moreover, both approaches allow trading of emission entitlements. However, they differ in several respects. Most importantly, the main focus of per capita approach is mitigation of climate change with redistribution of welfare as side-effect, while the focus of GDR is both redistribution and mitigation (cf. Attfield 2008).
A third approach criticizes the other two for lacking feasibility. In order to reach significant results in international negotiations, mitigation of climate change and development (redistribution) must be decoupled (Posner and Weisbach 2010).
The next type of market-based approaches is carbon taxes. An important proponent is Nordhaus. He suggests that countries start with a relatively low carbon tax and then raise it over time, if the adverse effects of climate change are predicted to increase. An advantage of tax approaches compared to cap-and-trade approaches is that they can more easily integrate benefits and costs of emissions reductions. They are more efficient given the uncertainties of climate change (Nordhaus 2007).
Oreskes comments on Nordhaus’s proposals and stresses that available analyses indicate that both cap-and-trade approaches and carbon taxes have the capacity to reduce GHG emissions, but that both approaches are likely to be too weak and need to be strengthened over time. So she asks whether it is likely to prove easier to lower the caps in a cap-and-trade system or to raise the tax in a taxation regime. Although she admits that this question is hard to answer, she argues that if we think of a carbon tax as a kind of “sin” tax—comparable to taxes on alcohol and tobacco—it has actually proven relatively easy in the US to increase these taxes once they have initially been accepted. It is quite likely that when the general public starts to accept that climate change is dangerous they may also accept a substantial “sin” tax on carbon emissions. Once implemented, it will become part of everyday life like any other consumption tax. It would be viewed as something “normal” and “necessary” (Oreskes 2011).
The international negotiations on cap-and-trade will probably continue, but I agree with those who argue that a carbon tax would probably be more efficient. In addition, voluntary measures undertaken by individuals as citizens and consumers are vital in order to put pressure on politicians to take action, whether the politicians will do this by cap-and-trade, taxes, or other means.
So, is mitigation of climate change at all feasible? Will the present generation live up to its obligation to mitigate climate change for the benefit of future generations? If so, which mitigation measures are feasible? Some might say that feasibility issues like these are not ethical issues. I would argue, however, that they are. As long as we want our actions to make a difference, the feasibility of our various options for action is certainly an ethical issue.
The issue of feasibility enters on different levels. Let us first discuss the general problem, i.e., whether mitigation of climate change is at all feasible.
A good starting point is Stephen Gardiner’s characterization of mitigation of climate change as a collective dilemma and more precisely as “a perfect moral storm” (Gardiner 2006). According to Gardiner, climate change involves the convergence of three different storms or sets of problems: global problems, intergenerational problems and theoretical problems. This convergence is “a perfect moral storm,” i.e., a situation in which we find it difficult to act and are vulnerable to moral corruption.
The global storm has three characteristics. The first is a spatial dispersion of causes and effects. Emissions of greenhouse gases from any location affect the climate globally. The second characteristic is fragmentation of agency. The problem of climate change is a collective dilemma, i.e., a situation in which it is collectively rational to cooperate and mitigate climate change by reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases—because this would lead to a better future world—but individually rational not to mitigate climate change by reducing one’s own greenhouse gas emissions—because each individual’s emissions are negligible and would imply too high costs for the individual. It is a type of collective dilemma that Garrett Hardin calls “The Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin 1968). In essence, this is a Prisoner’s Dilemma involving a common resource, in this case a good climate. Finally, there is institutional inadequacy. In order to mitigate climate change an effective system of global governance is necessary, but we have no such governance (Gardiner 2006).
The intergenerational storm has similar characteristics. First, there is a temporal dispersion of causes and effects. The full effects of the emissions of greenhouse gases by one generation will be experienced only by future generations. Second, there is a fragmentation of agency. What is considered rational from the limited perspective of one generation (e.g., to not mitigate climate change) differs from what is rational from an intergenerational point of view (to mitigate). Finally, there is institutional inadequacy in terms of lack of global governance that also takes the interests of future human beings seriously.
According to Gardiner, there is also a theoretical storm. We are ill-equipped to deal theoretically with the problems raised by climate change. This may lead to difficulties to act and eventually to moral corruption (Gardiner 2006).
In sum, Gardiner is pessimistic. His sees no way out of the collective dilemma of climate change mitigation. There is an irresolvable discrepancy between what is individually rational and what is collectively rational.
Gardiner’s pessimism has been challenged by, for example, Peter Singer. Singer thinks that there might be some grounds for more cautious optimism than Gardiner’s analysis would allow. He thinks that we are sufficiently theoretically equipped for action and identifies three different ethical principles that might govern the distribution of scarce resources in the situation we face with regard to climate change. These principles have all been mentioned above, namely the polluter pays principle, the principle of equal per capita shares, and the ability to pay principle. Singer concludes that “in practical terms, the choice between the principles is less relevant than one might at first think, because all three of them point in the same direction” (Singer 2006).
changing ourselves and our consumption patterns, and
changing the rules for production and/or consumption by political steering.
There is wide agreement that the appropriate means for resolving commons problems… is for the parties to agree to change the existing incentive structure through the introduction of a system of enforceable sanctions (Hardin calls this “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon”) (Gardiner 2006).
Still, he seems pessimistic. Given my somewhat more optimistic view, I argue that we must at least try. This means in turn that we have to start focusing on measures that are more feasible than those that are less.
This brings us to the next level of feasibility issues, leaving the general issue behind. In international climate negotiations, we need to assign more weight to feasibility than has been the case so far (see above). The important thing is to have an international treaty that works, which would require that countries like the US, China and India would see it as beneficial for their own countries. This might not happen until they begin to experience adverse effects of climate change in their own countries such as extreme weather events, and—as we saw in the introduction—the first reports are coming linking serious weather events to anthropogenic GHG emissions. When the expected costs of not mitigating climate change become too high, they might be prepared to accept a far-reaching treaty. Moreover, moral opinions may influence politicians to reconsider what is beneficial for their countries for reasons of keeping a good reputation.
Regarding the content of international climate treaties, we saw above that the international negotiations so far have mainly focused on cap-and-trade approaches. The issue whether or not cap-and-trade approaches are as such more feasible than carbon taxes I have already touched upon. As far as I can see, carbon taxes seem more feasible. However, since the international negotiations have mainly concentrated on cap-and-trade measures they might perhaps be more promising for that very reason.
Reduction of GHG Emissions From Meat Production and Consumption
Should we Mitigate in the Livestock Sector?
We saw above that there is a strong consensus that we should mitigate climate change for the benefit of future generations. Now, livestock production contributes to climate change. Does this mean that we also should reduce the global GHG emissions from livestock production for the benefit of future generations?
Before we discuss this issue let me just point out that there are different views on how high the global GHG emissions from the livestock sector are. The estimates range from 10% to 51% (Herrero et al. 2010). The report Livestock’s Long Shadow from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been at the center of the debate. According to this report, the global emissions from the livestock sector constitute 18% (Steinfeld et al., 2006: xxi). This estimate has been criticized for being too high (Pitesky et al. 2009) as well as too low (Goodland and Anhang 2009). More research on this is certainly needed. Here I assume the moderate estimate by the FAO report. Even this moderate estimate indicates that the global GHG emissions from livestock production are substantial.
In its estimations, the FAO uses the method of life cycle analysis (LCA). This method focuses on the whole production chain from feed crop to product, transport not included. 9% of the global carbon dioxide emissions relates to land use change (mainly deforestation in Latin America), 37% of the methane emissions derive from enteric fermentation in ruminants (cattle, sheep), and 65% of the emissions of nitrous oxide originate in the livestock sector, mainly from manure (Steinfeld et al. 2006: xxi).
In recent years, several reports—based on LCA—have shown the differences in GHG intensity of different food products (for example, Williams et al. 2006 (called the Defra report or “The Cranfield Study”); Fiala 2008; Cederberg et al. 2009; Audsley et al. 2009). Regardless of the exact estimates, we see a similar pattern in all these reports: the GHG intensities of beef and sheep meat are much higher than the GHG intensity of pork, which is higher than the GHG intensities of chicken meat and eggs, and the GHG intensities of animal products are generally much higher than those of non-animal food products. As an example, let me mention a few results from the recent UK report by the World Wildlife Fund and the Food Climate Research Network (Audsley et al. 2009, 37–39). The GHG intensity of beef is estimated to be 12.14 kg CO2e/kg, of sheep and goat meat 14.61, of pork 4.45, of chicken meat 2.84, of eggs 2.94, and of milk (whole, fresh) 1.19. The estimates for non-animal food products are generally much lower. For instance, the GHG intensity of potatoes is estimated to be 0.26 kg CO2e/kg, of apples 0.32, and of wheat (milling) 0.52. There are, however, notable exceptions. Tomatoes have an estimated GHG intensity of 3.79. This relatively high figure is due to production in greenhouses (cf. Williams et al. 2006). I will return to the differences in GHG intensity of different food products later.
Given that there are substantial global GHG emissions from the livestock sector, should measures be undertaken by the present generation to reduce these emissions in order to mitigate climate change for the benefit of future generations? At first glance, the answer might seem self-evident; if we accept to mitigate climate change and accept that it is partly caused by the livestock sector, of course we should mitigate it also in the livestock sector. However, not all would agree.
One argument is that the GHG emissions in this sector in many countries are lower than in, for example, the transport sector. The FAO report points out that the global GHG emissions from the livestock sector are higher than those from the transport sector (Steinfeld et al., 2006: xxi). Pitesky et al. stress, however, that this statement about global emissions cannot be applied regionally. In most developed countries the contribution of livestock production is relatively small compared to the transport and energy sectors, while it can be much higher in developing countries, because of their much smaller transport and energy sectors. In the US, livestock contributes only 3%, while transport contributes 26%. In countries like Paraguay, livestock may contribute more than 50% because of the much smaller transport and energy sectors (Pitesky et al. 2009). On this basis one could argue that the focus of mitigation measures could reasonably vary among different countries. The US should undertake mitigation measures primarily in the transport sector because this sector emits relatively much more than the livestock sector. Countries like Paraguay, on the other hand, should focus primarily on the livestock sector because it emits relatively much more (given that a developing countries like Paraguay should assume responsibility to mitigate in the first place).
Another argument against undertaking mitigation measures in the livestock sector is that it is more difficult to undertake such measures in this sector than in, for example, the transport sector, because it is more difficult to develop sufficiently efficient technological solutions. It is easier to reduce the GHG emissions by new transport technologies than by new technologies for livestock production.
Finally, there is an argument regarding global treaties. We should avoid too detailed a steering at a global level. Measures should be general and not focus on specific sectors. A global treaty should only include general steering in terms of a general cap that leaves to each country to decide how high emissions are acceptable in each particular sector, e.g., the livestock sector or the transport sector. The argument is basically an argument for the autonomy of different countries to decide for themselves within the framework of a globally negotiated cap.
There are also arguments in favor of undertaking mitigation measures leading to a reduction of GHG emissions in the livestock sector. One argument is that the issue of mitigation of climate change is so important and urgent that all sectors should contribute, some more and some less, including the livestock sector. Even if the relative emissions from the transport sector are higher than from the livestock sector in some countries—like the US—the emissions from livestock are in absolute terms still very high. If we focus on meat consumption rather than production, the dimension of the problem is underlined by the fact that the US has the highest per capita consumption of meat in the world. In this country the average consumption is 122.79 kg per person and year. This can be compared with India, which has the lowest consumption with 3.26 kg. The average consumption in the world is 40.09 kg (FAO 2011 (these figures concern the year 2007)).
A response to the argument that technological solutions are difficult to develop in the livestock sector is that even if this would be true—and it seems to be true—this does not mean that no mitigation measures can be undertaken in this sector whatsoever. Rather than increasing meat production or keeping it at current levels, we could try to reduce it (see below).
Let me also comment on the argument regarding the content of treaties. I agree that it is probably not possible to have sector-specific caps in global treaties, but it could be possible in well-integrated communities of states such as the EU. The question remains, however, what kind of political steering there should be. Below I discuss the option of a common EU tax on meat consumption.
Which Countries and Individuals?
Given that we should mitigate climate change not only in the transport and energy sectors but also in the livestock sector, which countries and individuals in the present generation should, more precisely, do it? I have argued more generally that although developed countries should take the lead in mitigating climate change, emerging countries like the BRICS countries must also start taking their responsibility. The same holds true regarding the responsibility for reducing GHG emissions from meat production and consumption.
One way of taking the lead would be for developed countries to provide technological support to developing countries and emerging countries in order to improve productivity, since improved productivity is one way of reducing GHG emissions (see further below). Traditional production systems have very high GHG emissions, because they are extensive and use low-yielding cows (cf. Steinfeld et al. 2006, 114). Another way for developed countries of taking the lead would be to try to limit the population growth in developing countries by promoting the use of contraceptives. In this way the increasing demand for meat coupled to the population growth would be constrained. Note, however, that it is the number of meat eating humans that need to be restricted or the amount of meat eaten per human, not the number of humans as such.
The responsibility of individuals in developed, emerging and developing countries regarding meat consumption will be discussed in the final main section about the mitigation option of reduced meat production and consumption.
As we saw above, there are two main methods for mitigation of climate change: command and control regulation and market-based approaches (cap-and-trade, taxes, subsidies). According to the former the government decides the mix of measures, according to the latter the government relies on markets and individuals to decide the mix of measures. However, what measures for reducing GHG emissions from meat production and consumption are there for the government or the market to decide on?
One general approach is technological. By improving the methods of meat production the GHG emissions will be reduced. One measure is to improve productivity by making cattle grow faster and thereby emit less GHGs over their lifetime. This can be done, for example, by changing the feed to a diet higher in lower-fiber concentrates including cereals and oilseeds. Other options could be to genetically select for cattle that emit less methane or genetically modify them to emit less. One could also restrict the time cattle spend outdoors grazing, which may reduce the emissions of nitrous oxide from manure. The manure could then be used for biogas (Garnett 2007, 130–143).
Other technological options that have been much debated concerns the pros and cons of organic versus conventional production. Many comparative studies have been carried out, but the results vary substantially. Some point in favor of organic production systems, others of conventional (Garnett 2007, 143). The Defra report found that for cattle, organic systems are more GHG intensive per unit of meat than conventional systems, because of higher methane emissions. The lower nitrous oxide emissions in organic production do not compensate for the extra methane. Moreover, the report found organic systems for chicken and egg production to be more GHG intensive than conventional systems, while organic systems for pork and sheep meat production were somewhat less GHG intensive (Williams et al. 2006). Garnett draws the tentative conclusion that “it is quite probable that the differences in the greenhouse gas intensity of organic and conventional systems are not very significant at all, particularly since often the differences between individual farm practices (and emissions) can be greater than those between systems” (Garnett 2007, 147). And–one could add—the differences are much lesser than those between different types of animal products and between animal products and non-animal food products (see above).
Ultimately the most straightforward way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector is to reduce significantly and absolutely the number of animals farmed. This is especially true from a global perspective: the many finely balanced technological and managerial approaches to mitigation identified in this paper may be simply too costly or difficult to scale up to the global level (Garnett 2007, 152).
Increased productivity implies that the number of animals can be reduced without decreasing the quantity of meat produced. However, if we want to achieve truly substantial reductions of GHG emissions in the livestock sector, livestock numbers have to be reduced. This mitigation option of reduced meat production (and consumption) will be discussed in more detail in the final main section.
So, which measures for reducing emissions from meat production and consumption are feasible? To try to solve the problem of climate change mitigation in the livestock sector by technological means is not particularly controversial, although there are different views on which technologies should be used. Technological solutions are therefore feasible in the sense that many of them could be accepted by meat producers as well as politicians with vested interests in meat production. However, as I will argue below, they are probably not sufficient to solve the problem. This leaves us with the option of reducing meat production and consumption. This option is much more controversial and therefore perhaps less feasible in the sense that it will meet much opposition, not only from meat producers and many politicians but also from many meat consumers (see further below).
The Mitigation Option of Reduced Meat Production and Consumption
Should we Reduce Meat Production and Consumption?
The main argument in favor of the view that we should mitigate climate change by—in addition to other measures—reducing meat production and consumption is that technological solutions probably are not sufficient. We should try to do what we can to reduce the GHG emissions by technological means. However, there are limits to what can be done. First, there are limits due to the intrinsic characteristics of the ruminants. We cannot radically reduce the GHG emissions from ruminants without radically modifying their digestive system (Wirsenius et al. 2010). However, genetically modifying ruminants to emit less GHGs cannot be done quickly and would be extremely costly. Second, there are limits to reducing the emissions by technological means due to their non-point source character (Wirsenius et al. 2010). GHGs are emitted throughout the whole production process from feed crop to product. Reduction of the emissions requires measures to be undertaken along the whole production chain. Taken together these measures may be costly and difficult to undertake at a global level. One further problem of reducing the emissions by technological means concerns animal welfare. There are animal welfare limits to improved productivity (Garnett 2009). Care for animal welfare is an ethical reason for not increasing productivity beyond a certain point.
Another key argument in favor of the view that we should mitigate climate change by reducing meat production and consumption focuses on the differences in GHG intensity of various food products. As we saw above, there are substantial differences in GHG intensity between different animal products with beef and sheep meat being much more GHG intensive than pork, which in turn is more intensive than chicken meat and eggs. These differences can be a basis for changes in diet and these changes can easily have large mitigation effects. Moreover, there are even more substantial differences in GHG intensity between animal and non-animal food products with animal products being generally much more intensive than non-animal food products. These differences can be a basis for changes in diet with an even higher mitigation potential (Audsley et al. 2009). It should be noted, however, that the climate merits of eating non-animal food products depend largely on which products are consumed. The suggestion by, for example, Goodland and Anhang to replace livestock products with analogues like tofu (Goodland and Anhang 2009; see further below) would have many drawbacks. Such analogues are highly processed, which require large amounts of energy. They depend on soy or other substitutes to be imported, resulting in emissions from transport. Moreover, production of these analogues might lead to deforestation to make way for farmland (Audsley et al. 2009).
My conclusion is that we have good reasons to support the mitigation option of reducing meat production and consumption.
Which Countries and Individuals?
This option of reducing meat consumption (and production) is not an option for poor people in poor countries. The poor do not usually eat much meat and land in poor countries can probably be better used for producing more food of the kind they usually eat, i.e., non-animal food products. Reduced meat consumption (and production) is an option for developed countries and to an increasing extent for emerging economies (BRICS). The FAO has predicted that the global meat consumption will double until the year 2050, mainly because of increasing consumption by the growing middle class in—what it calls—“developing” countries (Steinfeld et al. 2006, 4, 33, 276). A reasonable approach to this challenge is a kind of “contraction and convergence” policy, as proposed by McMichael et al. They suggest a reduction of per capita meat consumption to a certain level in developed countries and an increase of the per capita meat consumption up to this level in developing countries (McMichael et al. 2007).
Given that we should reduce meat production and consumption in order to mitigate climate change, the question arises how far we should go. Roughly speaking, there are at least three different options: differentiated reduction (a “less beef” approach), non-differentiated reduction (a “less meat” approach), and elimination (a “no meat” approach).
Shifting consumption from animal products with high associated GHG emissions (beef and sheep meat) to products with lower emissions (poultry, vegetable protein) can reduce total global GHG emissions (FAO 2009, 74).
A certain level of livestock production can actively help tackle climate change, by contributing to soil carbon sequestration and by making use of otherwise unproductive land, so avoiding the need to plough alternative land. The ability of livestock to consume crop residues and byproducts that are inedible to humans is resource efficient and leads to GHG avoidance, provided the advantages of substitute uses (such as biogas production) do not outweigh their benefits as an animal feed. Manure can improve soil quality.
Nevertheless at current levels of production and consumption—and even more so at projected future levels—the disbenefits of livestock with respect to GHG emissions far outweigh the benefits (Garnett 2009, 497; cf. Audsley et al. 2009, 68).
An effective strategy must involve replacing livestock products with better alternatives, rather than substituting one meat product with another that has a somewhat lower carbon footprint (Goodland and Anhang 2009, 15).
As far as I can see, reduction of meat production and consumption is necessary, and the important thing is to start reducing. We can take a stand later on how far we need to go. And starting by reducing the consumption of beef can later lead to reduction of other meat products. Differentiated reduction of meat consumption can be a good point of departure.
Should the measures be voluntary or coercive?
Should they focus primarily on production or consumption of meat?
Let me give a few examples of possible voluntary and coercive measures. Voluntary measures could be governmental recommendations to consume less beef or less meat. One option is to propose one vegetarian day a week (e.g., “Meatfree Mondays”). Such recommendations could be supported by climate labeling (information by the government or independent organizations about the GHG intensity of food products), climate certifications (information by the government or independent organizations that a food product has been produced in a climate-friendly way), or climate declarations (information by the producers about the GHG intensity of their products).
We saw above that there are at least two types of coercive measures, command and control regulation and market-based approaches. Regarding livestock, command and control regulation could include a ban on meat imports, one vegetarian day a week in public service, or climate considerations of food in public procurement. Market-based approaches could include cap-and-trade on emissions from meat production. Other options are meat taxes on production or consumption.
Although good in themselves voluntary measures are probably not sufficient to reach substantial results in climate change mitigation (cf. Alcott 2008). As we have seen more generally above, coercive measures seem necessary. Without excluding additional options, I would like to suggest a meat tax. Should this tax be on meat production or meat consumption? Singer has argued in favor of a consumption tax on meat (Singer 2009). To date, the most developed argument for such a tax has been provided by Wirsenius et al. (2010).
Wirsenius et al. argue that a tax on meat production has disadvantages in terms of high monitoring costs. The actual emissions of methane and nitrous oxide would have to be monitored at farm level. Given the big differences in methane emissions among individual animals, measurements of a significant sample of animals need to be carried out regularly. The even bigger differences in emissions of nitrous oxide from soil require measurements of a large part of the fields. Moreover, an objective of a tax on meat production would be to stimulate producers to reduce the GHG emissions by technical measures. However, the technical potential for such reduction is relatively low. Taken together these difficulties make a tax on meat production “virtually impossible in practice” (Wirsenius et al. 2010). A tax on meat consumption, on the other hand, would be much more efficient and could be implemented very quickly with no need to wait for technological developments. In a detailed analysis Wirsenius et al. show that a meat consumption tax can be cost-effective within the EU, especially if it is combined with a land use change through which former grazing land—due to the expected reduced numbers of livestock—is used for bioenergy production (Wirsenius et al. 2010).
According to Wirsenius et al. an additional advantage of a meat consumption tax is that it would affect production and land use in countries exporting to the EU, for example, countries in Latin America. Since livestock production in Latin America is dominated by extensive production with lower productivity and therefore much higher GHG emissions, the EU tax would have the additional mitigation effect of reducing this production, provided that the decreased consumption in the EU is not counteracted by increased consumption of animal food products from Latin America elsewhere in the world (Wirsenius et al. 2010). On this point I am critical of Wirsenius et al. They do not take this risk seriously enough. Actually, it is quite probable that we will instead see an increased consumption among the growing middle class in emerging countries. This risk illustrates very clearly the necessity of a global treaty with meat consumption taxes also outside the EU.
However, given the advantages of a tax on meat consumption, should this tax be differentiated or non-differentiated? Wirsenius et al. argue in favor of a differentiated meat tax, i.e., a tax that is weighted according to the average GHG intensities of different animal food products. In their example, the tax on ruminant meat is 16%, on pork 5%, and on poultry meat 4%. They provide two main arguments. First, a differentiated tax is likely to change the average diet. People would certainly buy relatively less of food products with a higher tax and relatively more of the food products with a lower tax. Second, the GHG intensity of ruminant meat is much higher than the GHG intensities of pork and poultry meat, and this difference should be exploited in taxation. Calculations show that 80% of the effect of a meat tax can be obtained by taxing the consumption of ruminant meat alone (Wirsenius et al. 2010).
An objection to a differentiated consumption tax on meat is that it would stimulate production of pork and chicken meat and this would have certain bad consequences. Pigs and chickens are dependent on cereals, and humans could eat cereals, which would be much more resource efficient than eating pork and chicken meat. Moreover, pigs and chickens are also fed with oilseed, and oilseed production (soy) is linked to high carbon dioxide emissions from land use change (deforestation, mainly in Latin America) (Garnett 2009). In addition, a tax that stimulates more production of chicken meat has a drawback from the perspective of animal welfare, because of the low welfare of the chickens (cf. Morris 2009) compared to the welfare of cattle, which on the whole is somewhat better. A non-differentiated tax on meat would therefore be preferable (Singer 2009). A reply to this latter objection is that what it shows is rather that a differentiated consumption tax must be combined with efforts to improve animal welfare. A reply to the objection that humans could eat the cereals and that production of soy is negative for the climate is to take this is a reason to have a differentiated tax only as a starting-point and after a certain period of time turn it into a non-differentiated one, covering all kinds of meat equally.
Another objection to a differentiated tax is that cattle under certain circumstances can contribute to climate change mitigation. If cattle graze on unfertilized grasslands without concentrated feed, their carbon sequestering role may outweigh their emissions of methane and nitrous oxide (Allard et al. 2007). A reply is that the circumstances for this positive role are rare in many developed countries and would only allow a much lower number of cattle than is currently the case (Garnett 2009).
I conclude that we should implement consumption taxes on meat and that these should, at least to begin with, be differentiated. The main reason is that we could obtain a very substantial mitigation effect even by taxing ruminant meat alone and this circumstance should be exploited (Wirsenius et al. 2010). In addition, a differentiated tax would probably more easily get acceptance among the general public than a non-differentiated tax and be a first incentive to start changing the consumption patterns. If necessary for successful climate change mitigation, the differentiated tax could in a second step be turned into a non-differentiated tax, stimulating people to be more radical and eat less meat more generally.
Let me also make two suggestions on how to use the meat consumption tax. The first is that part of the tax should be ring-fenced for further technological research on how to reduce GHG emissions in meat production. The second suggestion is to use part of the tax to support farmers by facilitating the conversion from meat production to other types of agricultural production. In this way, it also becomes clear to the public that the tax is not merely a way for the government to gather revenues.
We now turn to the issue of feasibility. We can expect that three important groups in society will oppose the mitigation option of reduced meat production and consumption or at least be very reluctant, namely meat producers, many politicians, and many meat consumers. Let us take a closer look at this opposition.
Naturally, meat producers and their organizations will oppose the option of reduced meat production and consumption. Meat production represents vital economic interests of this group and offers important job opportunities. It should be noted, however, that this negative view concerns reduced consumption of domestically produced animal food products. Meat producers could probably accept a reduction of meat consumption to the extent this reduction only concerns imported meats.
In addition to opposition by meat producers, the option of reduced meat production and consumption will also be opposed by many politicians. A clear example is the climate resolution of the EU Parliament “2050: The future begins today” (European Parliament 2009). This resolution mentions the FAO report (Steinfeld et al. 2006), concludes that meat consumption contributes to climate change, and suggests certain mitigation measures, but it does not suggest any actions to lower meat consumption. This neglect by politicians is probably due to the fact that many politicians in the EU Parliament have a long history of supporting their own country’s farmers, and this vested interest might make it difficult for them to support reduced meat consumption as a climate change mitigation measure. Less meat consumption would reduce the dimension of the livestock sector, and less consumption of beef and sheep meat and relatively more of poultry and pork would also change the established structure of this sector. An even more fundamental reason for the neglect by politicians is perhaps that meat, eggs, and dairy consumption is a sensitive area, closely related to the lifestyle and basic values of many people. Politicians might be afraid of steering people’s lifestyle in a particular direction, for example, to eat less meat. This is basically a conflict between the value of individual autonomy–and privacy–and the value of the welfare of future human generations, which would motivate steering measures.
This brings us to the opposition or reluctance of meat consumers to reduce their consumption. This opposition or reluctance is due to deeply rooted consumption habits. The desire for meat seems to be very difficult for many people to overcome. Moreover—as already mentioned—diet and lifestyle might be experienced as something that politicians should not interfere with. To do so would be a violation of individual autonomy and privacy or even a violation of a human right, namely the right to eat whatever one wants.
How can and should the opposition or reluctance among meat producers, politicians, and meat consumers be handled? First, it seems more promising to focus on meat consumption rather than meat production. The options of technological solutions are limited and meat producers will not give up their enterprise easily. Moreover, taxes on meat production are very costly to monitor. Taxes on meat consumption, on the other hand, would be much more efficient and meat consumers are likely to change their average diet due to these. These climate taxes should be introduced in two steps, however, first a differentiated tax and later a non-differentiated one.
Second, political steering is necessary. Voluntariness would hardly work. Taxes are more promising. However, many politicians would be reluctant to introduce consumption taxes on meat because of previous commitments to the livestock industry and out of respect for individual autonomy and privacy. But the problem of climate change is so big and so urgent that action is necessary. Therefore people with a high awareness of the problem of climate change should put pressure on politicians to introduce meat consumption taxes.
Third, when introducing a meat consumption tax, the politicians probably need to justify it as an “emergency” measure. Hopefully, however, it might then rather soon be perceived by the general public as something “normal,” as simply a “climate tax on food,” a “sin tax” like taxes on tobacco and alcohol. The tax can then be increased step by step and go from a differentiated one to a non-differentiated.
Fourth, when introducing the tax, it should be stressed by the politicians that reduced meat consumption is good not only for the climate but also for other environmental aspects (less water pollution and habitat destruction), health (eating less meat would be good for overweight people in developed countries; cf. McMichael et al. 2007) and animals (fewer animals would suffer in livestock production). The concerns for climate, environment, health, and animal welfare converge.
I have developed my argument in three steps. In the first step, I argue that the present generation has a moral obligation to mitigate climate, stressing the convergence on this point of different ethical approaches (e.g., consequentialist, rights-based, and justice-focused). The governments of developed countries should take the lead in this process, but emerging countries should also start taking their responsibility. Individuals have an obligation to put pressure on their governments to undertake mitigation measures. Whether cap-and-trade approaches or tax approaches are the most efficient is still not clear, but I tend to support a tax approach. The problem of feasibility should be taken seriously and it seems that coercive political steering—in terms of cap-and-trade, taxation or command and control regulation—is necessary in order to achieve true results in mitigation of global warming.
In the second step, I argue that we should mitigate climate change not only in the industry, transport and energy sectors but also in the livestock sector. The problem of global warming is so important and urgent that all sectors must contribute to its mitigation, to a lesser or larger extent. However, technological measures to reduce GHG emissions in the livestock sector do not seem very promising—although we should do what we can to develop such measures—which leave us with the option of reduced meat production and consumption.
In the final step, I argue in favor of this option, but stress that it is an option only for developed and, to an increasing extent, emerging countries, not for poor people in poor countries. I also argue that a tax on meat consumption has clear advantages over a tax on meat production. A meat production tax would have high monitoring costs, while a meat consumption tax would be much more efficient. Given the differences in GHG intensity of various food products, I suggest a GHG weighted tax on meat consumption. At least to begin with the tax on beef and sheep meat should be higher than on chicken meat and pork. The main reason is that we could achieve a very high mitigation effect even by taxing ruminant meat alone. This circumstance should be exploited. Moreover, a differentiated tax is likely to get easier acceptance among the general public than a tax that is non-differentiated. However, if necessary for successful mitigation, the meat tax could later be turned into a non-differentiated tax in order to encourage less meat consumption in general. The mitigation option of reduced meat production and consumption will face difficult feasibility problems in terms of opposition from meat producers, many politicians, and many meat consumers. I suggest that we must at least try to overcome these problems. A way of doing this is to emphasize that reduced meat consumption is good not only for the climate but also for other environmental aspects, human health, and animal welfare. Hopefully, a sufficient number of politicians and consumers will find this compelling enough to take action.
This article is written within the framework of a research project funded by the Swedish Research Council. I have received valuable input from the other participants Bo Algers, Stefan Gunnarsson, and Henrik Lerner. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.